The Prime Minister has unveiled a programme to “build, build, build” in a much-trailed speech from the West Midlands about the UK’s economic recovery. Ellis Wiggins, Associate Director for the Home Counties, asks whether there is anything new in the announcements – and whether details of more radical planning reforms are still yet to come.
The Prime Minister’s address to workers and journalists in Dudley certainly delivered a great deal of rhetoric about his “new deal” to build homes and infrastructure – even if a number of the announcements seemed familiar. Boris Johnson outlined £5bn of capital spending on projects designed to get housebuilding off the ground again and boost growth and jobs to help the country out of a COVID-19 world. Most of these eye-catching proposals had already been drip-fed to the media by the time Mr Johnson started speaking.
Local authorities will take particular interest in £100m pledged for 29 road network projects, along with £900m for local growth projects that are ready to go, and £96m to accelerate town centre investment through the Towns Fund. Those councils which still retain schools which are crumbling around teachers and pupils will also welcome £1bn for a ten-year school rebuilding programme.
Labour have been quick to point out that the “new” deal restates some previous announcements from the Conservatives’ 2019 General Election manifesto and the Spring Budget, such as the announcements around funding for the road network or additional money for further education. There were many comparisons to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal ahead of Boris Johnson’s speech, and unfavourable comparisons afterwards to the scale of the Prime Minister’s announcements against the programme of the wartime President.
Radical reforms of the planning system
However, it is what went unsaid in the Prime Minister’s speech that will attract the attention of councils and the development industry. Mr Johnson made references to ‘Project Speed’ and bringing forward “the most radical reforms of our planning system since the end of the Second World War”, but any detail on what that meant was notably absent from his remarks. Further information could instead be found in a Number 10 press release indicating just some of the changes.
Local authorities could soon be faced with high streets made up of an increasing number of empty shops, and business parks devoid of companies who have embraced homeworking. The Government is proposing to increase the flexibility to repurpose commercial premises through Use Classes Orders, alongside granting the ability for commercial properties to be converted to residential use without planning permission. These measures are designed to ensure that vacant retail and office premises can be quickly refilled with different types of occupants without the spectre of ghost towns haunting councils across the country.
Pushing forward residential building
In order to push the Government’s “build, build, build” agenda forward, it is being proposed that the demolition and rebuild of commercial and residential properties will no longer need planning permission if they are being rebuilt as homes. Property owners will also be able to build on top of their buildings through a fast-track process, subject to consultation with their neighbours.
Cause for concern or celebration?
This package of measures appears to be a long way from the “radical reforms” that are being touted, and statements from the Housing Secretary indicate that more sweeping changes which dilute councils’ powers over planning are on the cards. There will undoubtedly be consternation among district councils and unitary authorities, particularly from Conservative councillors, who could be faced with their roles being reduced to the equivalent of a parish council commenting on planning applications. A potential backlash from their Conservative local authority colleagues may explain why government ministers are keeping quiet on any further details.
Cratus will watch with interest and analyse the detail of the Government’s planning reforms when they are fully unveiled. Nonetheless, it is clear that the Prime Minister’s announcements will be met with joy from those across the development industry who want the removal of what they see as barriers to them getting on with building.